What does it take to get started as a freelance web designer? If you’re brand new to both web design and freelancing, what are your first steps?
If you want to get started as a freelance designer, this post is for you.
One of the reasons that freelancing attracts so many people is the ease of entry. With a computer and a few basic programs anyone can learn enough to put together websites and start working as a freelancer. It can be be debated (and it has been) whether this is good or bad for the industry as a whole, but the fact is that there are a lot of freelancers out there, part-time and full-time, who don’t have loads of experience as a designer.
However, just because it’s easy to enter the market as a freelancer doesn’t mean that it’s easy to find and retain clients, build quality websites, and make a living from your work. Many freelancers start out with high hopes, only to be discouraged by the reality that they find in their work. With so many other freelancers and design studios out there, one of the most important things that an inexperienced freelancer needs to develop is confidence in themselves and their work.
Why Is Confidence Important for Freelancers?
For starters, clients and potential clients want to work with confident freelancers. They’ll notice when someone doesn’t have that confidence. Most clients aren’t very familiar with the design and development process and that’s why they want to work with someone whom they can trust to get the job done. If you’re talking with a potential client, showing a lack of confidence encourages them to consider other designers.
Aside from the impact on clients, having confidence in your work and your abilities is important for your own purposes. Having doubts about your abilities almost always leads to poor work, but feeling like you can get the job done effectively usually leads to you doing the best work you’re capable of.
It’s natural for new designers and new freelancers to have some doubts about their abilities and experience, but there are some key things you can do to minimize the negative impacts and to start building that confidence.
Tips for Gaining Confidence in Your Work:
1. Always work on developing your skills
No matter how talented and experienced you become, there will always be plenty of room for improvement. In fact, development is necessary to stay on top and to keep doing an effective job for your clients. As a new designer, there should even be an extra focus on development. As long as you’re constantly improving your skills and what you have to offer to clients, it’s likely that you’ll be able to maintain some confidence in your work, even if you’re not as experienced as some other designers.
A freelancer’s schedule is always busy, whether you’re freelancing part-time of full-time. In order to prioritize development you’ll need to set aside some time in your schedule for working on new things and building your skill sets. Fortunately, there are plenty of resources, both online and off, for learning on your own. Find some good books and tutorial sites and you’ll always have an abundance of things you could be working on with your own time.
Here are just three of the many training sites that can help:
2. Take the right kinds of jobs
Because there is such a wide variety of clients out there, there will always be an equally wide variety of freelancers needed. Large companies with big budgets may not be a good source of work for a brand new freelancer, but small companies that need something within your abilities may be a much better fit. Clients on smaller budgets should expect to work with someone who is less experienced, and higher-priced designers won’t take their projects, so there is a need for designers of all types.
Web design is like anything else in life, you get what you pay for. So clients on tight budgets provide learning opportunities for freelancers who are interested in taking the job for a learning experience as much as for the money. Unfortunately, for some reason many clients don’t completely understand the difference between a large budget website and a small budget site, so be sure that you and the client are on the same page as far as their expectations go.
Another good place to find your first job is through former employers or friends and family members. Make sure that everyone you know is aware that you are a freelancer. Ask them if they know of anyone who could use your design skills.
3. Find your niche
As I said earlier, there is room in the web design industry for a wide variety of people and skill sets. One of the best things an inexperienced freelancer can do is to develop a niche or a specialty that makes them different than every other new freelancer. Maybe you want to develop WordPress themes or customize e-commerce templates.
There are plenty of different specialties you could choose, but having one means that in your early days of freelancing you’ll be able to focus your growth in specific areas rather than trying to learn a little bit about all different types of projects. After a few jobs of the same type you’ll probably be more experienced in that specific role than many freelancers who have been designing for several years. At this point you’ll know your area of specialty very well and confidence should no longer be an issue. Once you’ve made it this far you can decide whether you’d like to branch out or remain focused.
Another great benefit to focusing on a specific niche is that you will eventually become an expert in that area. As an expert, you will be able to charge more for your services.
4. Allow plenty of time for each project
One of my biggest regrets about some of the first projects that I took as a freelancer was the amount of time that I devoted to the projects. In some cases I had to rush because I had other work lined up, or in many cases I rushed because I wasn’t being paid very much and didn’t want to devote more time than the project was worth. The problem with this approach is that you’ll never get the most out of the experience if you rush.
In the situations that I mentioned, I’m sure I could have done a better job if I had devoted more time to the specific projects, but instead the clients got less than my best work. The clients may have been happy, but in the end my confidence didn’t grow very much because I wasn’t improving my skills.
When you’re planning your work and scheduling projects, try to leave enough time to do your best work and finish the job with confidence, rather than finishing so you can move on and make money on another project. It’s natural for things to take longer for newer designers, and that’s ok (assuming the client isn’t on a tight deadline).
Your major priority with your first jobs should be learning new things and making yourself more valuable for the future. Making a little bit less money than you could earn if you rushed through these first jobs will benefit you in the long run because you’ll learn more and you’ll gain more confidence. Plus, you’ll build a better portfolio. If you rush through a job, you probably won’t want to add that to your portfolio.
5. Be upfront with clients
Most of us would like our potential clients to think that we’re the greatest designer out there. But regardless of what stage you’re at in your career, pretending to be something you’re not with a client can be a bad experience. If you’re upfront about your level of experience and what you can and can’t do at this point, clients will appreciate your straightforward approach. If the client’s needs fit into something that you’re comfortable taking on, great, but if not it’s better to discuss it up front than to get into a job and find out down the road that you can’t do the work.
If you’re inexperienced, don’t be afraid that there is no work available for you. High paying jobs may not be an option right away, but there are plenty of clients who are willing to work with new designers if the situation is a good fit.
6. Accept Constructive Criticism
Part of the learning process is accepting the feedback and constructive criticism of others. This includes clients, visitors of their sites, and other designers. Criticism isn’t always easy to take, but being able to learn and grow from it is one of the keys to success as a designer.
It’s always a good practice to keep the lines of communication open with clients throughout the process, that way you don’t finish a job and find out that they’re not happy with the work. Make an effort to learn how your clients think and what they expect, and be able to communicate your thoughts and opinions with them, and explain the reasons behind them.
As far as criticism from other designers, if want to learn from the opinions of others, forums are a great place to hang out when you start freelancing. Most design forums have a place where you can share your work with others to get their feedback. Remember, no two people will ever agree on what they like and dislike. Try to use the feedback that you get from others in a way that will make you a better designer.
A final point about criticism is not to take it personally. In most cases, it is a statement about your work and not about you as a person.
7. Charge what your work is worth
Setting prices is easily one of the most difficult aspects of freelancing. Even designers with years of experience struggle to price their services, so don’t be discouraged if pricing is an issue for you. It’s very common for new designers to undervalue their services and feel clients are doing them a favor by letting them design a site. These issues mean the freelancer usually charges less than their time is worth.
Occasionally, freelancers feel the need to make as much money as possible by charging more than they’re worth. This isn’t a good decision either. As a new freelancer it’s important to make an effort to find what price your services should be worth. Under charge and your clients won’t take you seriously (plus you won’t make enough money), over charge and you’ll have more pressure than you need while you should be focused on gaining experience.
If you are unsure of what other web designers charge, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps some helpful information in their Occupational Outlook Handbook that you can use as a guide.
8. Have other sources of income if possible
Since your focus during the early stages of freelancing should be on developing your skills and gaining confidence in your work, it’s best if you have some of source of income to live on, such as a full-time job. Not every new freelancer has a full-time job and it’s not a necessity, but I found it much less stressful as a new freelancer to have a full-time income in addition to the income from my freelancing. Your stress will be much lower and you’ll have the freedom to take lower paying jobs if you need to. Plus, you’ll be able to dedicate more time to each job. At some point you’ll reach a place in your career where it’s safer to make the jump to full-time freelancing. but ideally full-time freelancing is not right away for most people when they start out.
9. Develop a strong network
As a freelance designer, having a network is valuable for many different reasons. It’s helpful for:
- Finding new clients
- Getting advice and constructive criticism from other professionals
- Getting involved in the community and the industry
- When you’re stuck and you need some help from a friend
One of the downsides of freelancing is that you’re on your own. There’s no one to turn to when you need help. If you have a strong network there will always be others who are willing to give you some guidance or assistance when you need it most. You don’t have to build connections with the most well-known designers in the world, but find some others in the industry who you connect with who are willing to get to know you.
For more on networking, see the four part series:
10. Equip yourself with the necessary tools
Because it’s so easy to enter the industry as a freelancer, there’s a temptation to cut costs and only spend money when it’s absolutely necessary. One of the best things you can do for your productivity and for the quality of your work is to invest in the right tools that will make your work easier. Fortunately, there are some good free tools out there, but others will require some financial investment. Depending on specifically what type of work you’re doing and where your abilities lie, your requirements may be different than another freelancer’s, but there are plenty of tools and resources for everyone. Personally, I couldn’t image working without the Adobe products, and trying to save some money here would cost me in the long run.
11. Treat your business professionally
One of the habits of new freelancers is to approach it more like a hobby than a profession. If you hope to earn a living freelancing and to develop confidence in the quality of your work, approach your work professionally and it can make a world of a difference. In addition to the impact it will have on you, your clients will perceive you in whatever way that you present yourself. If in their dealings with you they get the idea that you’re just messing around with design as a hobby, that’s how they will see your work.
12. Take jobs that you enjoy
Whenever possible, choose to work on projects that you’re passionate about. It’s natural for all of us to do our best work when it’s related to a project that we really enjoy. Doing your best work and enjoying it will certainly lead to more confidence than just collecting a paycheck for jobs that you don’t enjoy.
13. Have personal projects for other things that you want to learn
With client work you’re limited to learning only what others want you to do for them. If there are other skills that you would like to develop, one of the best options is to start a project of your own that will allow you to incorporate the techniques that you want to develop. From my experience, personal projects have played a key role in my ongoing development, and they’re a major part of my plan for future development.
Some personal projects become profitable. Who knows? Your personal project could become a real moneymaker.
I strongly encourage new freelancers to find some time to pursue the things that they want to pursue, and to see it as a learning experience.
What’s Your Advice?
What advice would you give to other based on your experience? What has helped you to gain confidence in your work?
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